FutureMed? I hope not.
Tipped off by a tweet I tracked down an article in the San Jose Mercury News about the Singularity University’s FutureMed 2012. According to the author, Chris O’Brien, the big topic at the confab was “big data”. Big data seems to be the “next big thing” buzz word of the moment as big database companies hawk their programs as earth movers that can plow through mountains of bits and find magical insights for enterprises of all kinds. That includes the medical industry.
Evidently they fretted a lot about what to do with all the data in biomedicine that they can’t figure out what to do with. For the past decade—following the decoding of the first human genome circa 2000—the stream of genetic data has been flowing faster and faster. Problem is they haven’t been able to find many of the practical applications that were promised for medicine. Tons of data (and tons of money) but so far few big answers. In fact, mostly what they’ve found is deeper layers of complexity in genomics that will require, naturally, more data.
Now another data tsunami is coming from cheap sensors that can be put on and in people to monitor (i.e., gather more data) that must have the answers in it…somewhere. As O’Brien notes, we always seem to be on the cusp of a revolution, but the real engagement hasn’t happened.
Nevertheless, the FutureMeders are eternally optimistic that technology is the answer. AI, sensors, displays and other gizmos will feed people with data that tells them how the ol’ body is functioning. But even that may not be enough to get results because of one nearly insurmountable problem: people, damned people.
The FutureMed conference was evidently rife with what I call the “engineering mentality”. The singularity, transhumanist, AI world has a deep antipathy for human foibles. People are so irrational, lazy, emotional, ignorant and contrary that they defeat the ingenious things the engineers come up with. I’ve seen presentations and articles by engineers proclaiming the potential glory of the things they’ve brilliantly put together who say there’s just one problem: “the human factor.” Human beings are so flawed they mess up every effort engineers make to improve the world. Advocates for self-driving cars, robots, and Watson-like AIs just know we’d soon arrive at techno-utopia but for “the human factor”.
In their minds the answer is taking people out of the loop. Human driving incompetence causes mayhem on the highways, so programmers like Sebastian Thrun want to make people just passengers. Human workers are quarrelsome, unreliable, demanding and expensive so Foxconn wants to replace them with 1,000,000 robots in their plants.
O’Brien summed up the engineering dilemma FutureMed presented with this closing statement:
It seems clear that machines, computers and software are capable of delivering a revolution in health care, a future that feels so possible and tantalizingly close. The barriers, for now, continue to be us hopelessly imperfect humans, and the flawed, inflexible systems we’ve built to deliver health care.